KABUL, Afghanistan — The first sign that militants were attacking one of Kabul's premiere hotels was an explosion that pierced Jawid's eardrums, prompting him to jump out the window of his room on the first floor into a chaotic scene that quickly turned into a grisly morass of bodies, gunfire and shattered glass.
Twenty people died — including all nine attackers — in a more than five-hour standoff at the Inter-Continental that ended early Wednesday after NATO attack helicopters fired missiles to kill three suicide bombers on the roof.
It was one of the biggest and most complex attacks orchestrated in the Afghan capital and appeared designed to show that the insurgents are capable of striking even in the center of power at a time when U.S. officials are speaking of progress in the nearly 10-year war.
It started with one loud explosion at about 10 p.m. Tuesday, startling hotel guests, including Jawid, who uses only one name.
"There was smoke. People were running everywhere. There was shooting and crying," he said after escaping from the hotel grounds with his family. "The restaurant was full of guests."
The brazen attack, which occurred just a week after President Barack Obama announced the beginning of a U.S. troop withdrawal next month, led some to question whether the insurgents had inside help.Video: Hotel attack raises questions about Afghan security (on this page)
Pentagon and U.S. military officials told NBC News that US and Afghan authorities are investigating that possibility. The big question is how the attackers were able to penetrate and get weapons into one of the most heavily fortified public facilities in Kabul.
Slideshow: Kabul hotel attack (on this page)
The transfer of security responsibility to the Afghans is due to officially begin in seven areas of the nation, including most of Kabul province, in coming weeks.
"Where is the security in this country?" Jawid asked, shaking his head. "Where is the security in this hotel? When I got to the hotel, I had to go through three checkpoints. How did they enter?"
One hotel guest, Saiz Ahmed, an American Ph.D. student in Kabul studying Afghan legal history, said he cowered in a corner of his hotel room as the sound of gunfire and explosions grew louder.Story: Journalists return after Afghan hostage ordeal
He told CNN he thought death was imminent. "I'm sure none of us thought we were going to make it," he said. "I wrote my little will — just in case." The document, which he placed in his pocket, stipulated, according to Islamic law, the charities to which he wanted to donate, CNN reported.
After about six hours, he got the all-clear to come out and was escorted with other guests to the basement.
"As soon as we were able to get to the basement, people started praying, thanking God," he told CNN.
Another guest, Abdul Zahir Faizada, the leader of the local council in Herat province who was in Kabul to attend a conference on that very issue, had just finished dinner at the hotel restaurant and was walking to his room on the second floor when the militants struck. He said he saw five or six people in security-type uniforms clashing with the hotel staff and guards.
"Suddenly I saw this guy in a uniform pushing a man to the ground. He shot him dead," Faizada said.
For the rest of the night, Faizada and the mayor of Herat stayed locked in their darkened hotel room, whispering into cell phones with friends back in Herat who were giving them news updates of what was happening during the standoff.
Militants, armed with explosive vests, anti-aircraft weapons and grenade launchers, launched the attack on the eve of a conference in the capital about transition plans.
Some of the attackers carried tape recorders playing Taliban war songs and shot at anyone they saw. Guests jumped from second and third floors to escape, a hotel receptionist told Reuters, asking not to be identified.
Ashraf Ghani, chairman of the transition commission, was defiant as he opened the conference, which began Wednesday despite the bloodshed.
"The transition process will be done, and these coward enemies will not stop our plans," Ghani said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai also vowed that his army and police would be ready to take over from foreign forces as planned, warning the militants are "enjoying the killing of innocent people."
"Such incidents will not stop us for transitioning security of our country" to Afghan forces, Karzai said in a statement.
U.S. Rear Adm. Vic Beck, director of public relations for the international military coalition, said Afghan security forces responded quickly and professionally to the scene — even though NATO helicopters were later called in to attack militants on the roof of the hotel. NATO said coalition mentors also were partnered with some of the units involved in the incident.
"This attack will do nothing to prevent the security transition process from moving forward," Beck said.
Security at the Inter-Continental and other key installations had been tightened for the conference and other official events taking place in the city. Officials said they were investigating how the insurgents were still able to get through and infiltrate the building, which is frequented by foreigners and dignitaries.
Guests and visitors must pass through a roadblock and guards posted at the bottom of a hill that winds up to the building, then another checkpoint along the road before reaching the hotel where more security guards are set up in a building with metal detectors.
"We believe that there was a loophole in the security," said Latifullah Mashal, the spokesman of the Afghan National Directorate for Security. "So far, we don't know how they infiltrated. The intelligence service and the Ministry of Interior will jointly investigate this. We do have a few clues."
Afghan police were the first to respond to the attack, prompting firefights that resounded across the capital. A few hours later, an Afghan National Army commando unit arrived to help.
After hours of fighting, two NATO helicopters opened fire at about 3 a.m. at militants on the roof of the six-story hotel. U.S. Army Maj. Jason Waggoner, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said the helicopters killed three gunmen.
A final explosion occurred when one of the bombers who had been hiding in a room blew himself up long after ambulances had carried the dead and wounded from the hotel, according to Kabul Police Chief Gen. Mohammad Ayub Salangi.
Mashal said five of the suicide attackers blew themselves up and three were killed on the roof by coalition helicopters.
The 11 civilians killed included a judge from Logar province, five hotel workers and three Afghan policemen, Mashal said. The Ministry of Interior said a Spanish citizen also was among those killed, but no other information was disclosed.
The ministry said 18 people were wounded in the attack — 13 civilians and five policemen.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in the capital — an apparent attempt to show that they remain potent despite heavy pressure from coalition and Afghan security forces. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid later issued a statement claiming that Taliban attackers killed guards at a gate and entered the hotel.
Before the attack began on Tuesday, officials from the U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan met in the capital to discuss prospects for making peace with Taliban insurgents to end the nearly decade-long war.
The Inter-Continental — known widely as the "Inter-Con" — opened in the late 1960s, and was the nation's first international luxury hotel. It has at least 200 rooms and was once part of an international chain. But when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the hotel was left to fend for itself.
Twenty-two rockets hit the Inter-Con between 1992 and 1996, when factional fighting convulsed Kabul under the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani.
It was used by Western journalists during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Attacks in the Afghan capital have been relatively rare, although violence has increased since the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden in a U.S. raid in Pakistan and the start of the Taliban's annual spring offensive.
On June 18, insurgents wearing Afghan army uniforms stormed a police station near the presidential palace and opened fire on officers, killing nine.Story: 35 die as bomber destroys Afghan medical center
Late last month, a suicide bomber wearing an Afghan police uniform infiltrated the main Afghan military hospital, killing six medical students. A month before that, a suicide attacker in an army uniform sneaked past security at the Afghan Defense Ministry, killing three people.
Violence also continued elsewhere in Afghanistan.
A NATO service member was killed Wednesday by insurgents in southern Afghanistan, the coalition said, bringing to 62 the number of foreign troops killed so far this month. More details weren't provided. Also in the south, the director of religious affairs for Kandahar province, was gunned down Wednesday morning in the provincial capital of Kandahar.
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